Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hot spots

The Blank Noise Blogathon. I just woke up, and skimming the blogs, came across this at km's and Falstaff's. Felt like I should be a part of it. Like Falstaff puts it, academics don't really let lack of first-hand knowledge get in the way.

Sexual harassment isn't something that I can ever be flippant or dismissive about, so that rules out most anything that I thought I could say. But, on reflection, given that so much of my research is about self-control, surely there has to be something.

For instance, one thing I can think of is this very insightful theory proposed by Walter Mischel and Janet Metcalfe, which says - paraphrasing wildly - that objects are represented perceptually (in the "mind") across two parallel inter-connected semantic networks -- the "hot" and the "cool". Points in the hot system, aka "hot spots", carry primitive - impulsive - appetitive featural representations, while "cool nodes" consist of analytical - deliberative representations. The response to a given stimulus depends on which system gets activated. A stimulus that triggers the hot system is likely to generate an immediate and uncontrolled response, while one that activates a cool node is likely to get circulated within the cool system, and mulled over and digested to the extent that it may not even generate a response.

How is this relevant? Well, for one I could say that instances of harassment occur when a member of a class of stimuli (say, a woman) is observed by a Neanderthal with a hot system that's chronically activated in a particular way by said stimuli. Chronic activation of a particular response given a particular stimulus is eventually nothing but a personality trait -- person-situation interactions to revert to the words of Mischel, the master. Someone whose first "gut" response is to whistle / leer / grope, who never resists the impulse to whistle / leer / grope, is ultimately nothing but a whistler, leerer, groper. Net net, Metcalfe and Mischel give us an explanation of why this sort of thing occurs.

How does that help? Well, frankly, it doesn't. The theory does suggest how such behaviors may be modified. Associate cool nodes - "desirable" ones - with the stimulus. Repeatedly. Probabilistically, this makes it more likely that the current first (and only, hence dominant) response will be substituted. Over time, these other responses take over. Problem solved. Or is it?

The problem with the solution is -- how (and I mean HOW) does one make this happen? We're talking about a phenomenon that's not restricted to a group of four people dressed in all-white outfits and listening to Beethoven's Ninth, so catching the ringleader and clipping his eyes wide open isn't going to cut much ice. How does one change the culture of a land?

Blog on.


Blogger Sunil said...


(Well met indeed. It took me a few seconds to recall male Hong Kong academic friends from the past. :) Send me your email will you, at unsorted-at-yahoo.)

3/07/2006 4:10 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

"paraphrasing wildly", you say? Sounds as good as the bloody real thing, if you ask me :-)

But, seriously, you're right this is just a theory and hardly comforting. I may even have a problem, I think, with that bit about initial urge. While I won't get into that, yet, I think the one reason that these men do what they do is because they know they can get away with it. Certainty of punishment is what we need to stop this and other crimes against women.

3/08/2006 5:25 PM  
Blogger sattva said...

it is impossible for me to objectively analyse any theory on the issue. what is really disturbing is that the guilty are not restricted to a particular class/age band/educational background or anything. it just cuts across the whole spectrum. for me it's more an issue of fundamental respect rather - respect for self and other. if you truly respect the other, you will control the impulse - control is more a consequence.

3/09/2006 12:47 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

G [I guess we're on first name terms now ;-)]:
I agree. Certainty of punishment is a must. Enacting laws is essential, of course, but it's equally imperative to enforce them if one wants to control such acts. Re-reading it, I guess my post was more about a possible explanation for why the phenomenon might exist.

Thanks for stopping by. I agree that it is not a demographically restricted phenomenon, and that lack of respect is at the heart of the issue. However, instilling such respect is not something that can be done by external means (such as punishment). That's what I'd meant in the last paragraph that I'd written.

PS. Objective analysis does have its plus points, you know -- it can be of use at times :-)

3/09/2006 5:51 PM  

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